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Animal welfare producer’s high priority

By Staff | Mar 27, 2009

Ellsworth-area turkey producer Steve Larson holds his grandson, Grant, as they look over hundreds of curious turkeys at one of the family’s three sites.

ELLSWORTH – Pam Larson grew up in Randall, where her father was a carpenter.

Marrying Steve Larson of neighboring Ellsworth in 1973 changed her life in many ways. Her new in-laws had been in the turkey business since 1949 and Steve Larson had intentions to continue in turkey production.

Their first brooder house was in 1972 and in 1977, they built their first confinement house. Today, the Larsons care for turkeys at three locations each producing upward to 14,000 birds per year. They are active in both production and turkey promotion. They also grow corn and soybeans on their farm. They feed all of their corn to the turkeys and buying additional corn locally.

Their son, Chad, assists them in growing turkeys and their grandchildren help in the care of the turkeys, too. Pam Larson said the turkey business is “a positive thing for the family.”

Pam Larson just completed nine years as a board member of the Iowa Turkey Federation. She remains active serving on the state fair committee. Activities of the Iowa Turkey Federation at the Iowa Sate Fair include promoting turkey legs and breast filets. For the industry in general it connects Iowa with the turkey growers.

The Larson clan includes, from left, Shirley and Clifton Larson, Steve and Pam Larson, Chad and Sheila Larson, holding Grant Larson.

Talking turkey with Pam Larson reveals her fondness for all aspects of the turkey business from production to consumption. She easily lists turkey’s advantages as a healthy food, in that it is high in protein and low in fat. It’s cost per pound is competitive with all other types of meat making it affordable. The many ways it can be prepared shows turkeys versatility and a Larson family favorite is their own homemade turkey jerky.

As part of the turkey business, the Larsons market their birds through West Liberty Foods, an Iowa-based turkey-processing cooperative in West Liberty.

Oscar Mayer closed the West Liberty plant in 1996. Forty-seven turkey growers formed Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative to purchase the plant in 1997 and operate it as West Liberty Foods. They have since expanded to facilities in Sigourney, in 2000, Mount Pleasant, in 2003, and Tremonton, Utah, in 2007.

A major customer of West Liberty Foods is the Subway sandwich franchise. Anyone eating a Subway sandwich with turkey in it has a good chance of eating Iowa grown turkey, according to Pam Larson.

To maintain quality in their product and let current and prospective customers of West Liberty Foods see where their product comes from and how it is raised, the processing company conducts an annual audit of its growers.

The audit verifies that everyone employed in raising turkeys is current in both education and training, that turkeys have adequate nutrition, building conditions are safe for the birds, and there are adequate records of health care. As part of their routine, the Larson’s keep daily records on mortality, temperature, feed and medication.

Larson said the welfare of their turkeys is a continuous concern for the family. Before going into confinement housing, the turkeys were subject to stresses of weather and predators.

Computers maintain a constant environment to regulate the confinement buildings. Since turkeys do not handle heat stress well, temperatures are kept at 93 degrees when they are little. The temps are gradually lowered as the birds grow. Standby generators are ready in reserve in the event of a power failure.

Turkeys have several different rations depending on where they are in their development, Larson explained. A nutritionist keeps the Larsons advised on proper nutrition. A local veterinarian helps maintain the health of the flock and West Liberty Foods has its own veterinarian as well.

Another concern of the Larsons is biosecurity to maintain control of people who enter the farm to reduce the chance of introduction of diseases.

On the national Turkey Federation’s Web site (eatturkey.com) Pam Larson has narrated a slideshow describing what the family does to maintain good health and produce a quality product. From the home page click on turkey facts and trivia and select, from the pull-down menu, turkey production slideshows to find Larson’s presentation.

Pam Larson described turkey production as “very regulated.” Their manure management includes a plan, licensed applicators, and soil testing. She said, “We try to be very responsible and to be good stewards of the land.”

A cookbook with turkey recipes is available from the Iowa Turkey Federation at iowaturkey.com. There is a $3 charge to cover shipping.

You can contact Clayton Rye at crye@wctatel.net.

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